Barbara Dane

TrackSingle / Album
Trouble In MindTrouble In Mind
Dink's BluesFolk Festival At Newport Vol.2
I'm On My WayTrey 3012
When I Was A Young GirlWhen I Was A Young Girl
Who's Gonna Shoe
Your Pretty Little Foot
When I Was A Young Girl
Don't Sing Love SongsWhen I Was A Young Girl
Victim To The BluesBarbara Dane Sings The Blues
I Am A Weary And
A Lonesome Traveller
Barbara Dane
And The Chambers Brothers
Just Another DayFTA! Songs of the GI Resistance
Sometimes I Believe She Loves MeSometimes I Believe She Loves Me

 

Barbara Dane photo 1

Barbara Dane

 

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Barbara Dane playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

I came to Barbara virtually stone cold and long after her heyday in the sixties. That could have been just me but having looked around a bit recently I’m beginning to doubt whether too many readers outside of the United States were aware of the lady before her name popped up in the artists’ list. If you’re in that boat just take a listen to the clip below. It was recorded in 1959 and features Barbara singing Girl Of Constant Sorrow, a song you probably know. Now decide whether or not to carry on reading:

Compare and contrast that to the versions of the song from the two leading ladies of the early sixties folk revival, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. In his critique of the album from which that track came, the reviewer from AllMusic used the phrase, “in her hands these familiar songs seem both freshly born and truly lived”. I won’t criticise Joan or Judy, but shouldn’t Barbara be mentioned alongside them?

That track wasn’t a one-off but Barbara’s career didn’t follow the typical path for an artist with folk roots or leanings. The song’s source LP, the original title of which was When I Was A Young Girl (but it was reissued under the title, Anthology Of American Folk Songs), was something of a one-off; Barbara would release other albums but they were in different genres. There was almost a “done that, now I can move on” air about the LP. A start at the beginning approach is definitely called for with this redoubtable lady but before doing so here are a couple of quotes to chew on:

“Bessie Smith in stereo.” (renowned jazz critic Leonard Feather)

“Did you get that chick? She’s a gasser!” (Louis Armstrong upon hearing her at the Pasadena Jazz Festival and subsequently quoted in Time magazine)

Barbara was born way back on 12th May 1927 in Detroit, her parents having moved there from Arkansas for financial reasons. Activism as a way of life was something that was born in Barbara from her very early days with poverty, racism and oppression being almost the norm in the community in which she lived. Music was a channel to use to deliver the message(s). In terms of singing, a quote from the lady herself from an interview which appeared in Cadence magazine is in order:

“I knew I was going to be a singer and was singing all the time, every form of music I could find. My voice teacher specialized in Bel Canto opera singing. I knew I wasn’t going to be an opera singer but classical music teachers were the only kind I could find. He taught me to throw my voice out there, as if to the back of a huge hall. In that way I could lead the singing to encourage and support the pickets.”

In that same interview, Barbara talked about a certain record shop where she “discovered the Blues on 78 rpm records. Lil Green with Big Bill Broonzy, singing ‘Romance In The Dark’ and ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’? And Joe Turner singing ‘Piney Brown’s Blues’”. Such music became part of Barbara’s repertoire and whenever possible she sat in with bands in her local area. Interest in her singing grew and “She got an offer to tour with Alvino Rey’s band, but she turned it down in favour of singing at factory gates and in union halls.” (source: Wiki)

In 1949, Barbara moved to San Francisco which gave her the opportunity to appear on the coffeehouse circuit in addition to making appearances with bands which played a mix of jazz, blues and pop music of the day. We’d now stick the label of Traditional Jazz on some of the music with which she got involved and indeed such music gave her the first opportunity to appear on record. That 1957 single was credited to New Orleans (black) clarinettist George Lewis backed by Dick Oxtot’s Traditional Jazz Quartet with Barbara on vocal (see also Footnotes). The sides were Good Morning Blues and (The) Glory Of Love. Barbara sounds as if she was in her element; already singing with authority and not in any way overawed by the musicians she’s with or the recording process.

Barbara’s first LP also saw release in 1957. Entitled Trouble In Mind, it was a logical follow-on from the single and the overall sound wasn’t dissimilar though it did feature a different backing ensemble. The front of the sleeve told you what to expect. In smaller print from the title were the words:

BARBARA DANE sings

a
voice
like
this
hasn’t been recorded for 30 years

This was Bessie Smith era blues, or to widen that scope a little, the era of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Memphis Minnie. Barbara mentions all these great ladies in a long interview in December 1991. Those influences are all in the mix but close perusal of the writers of the songs on the album suggests that another lady should be included within the grouping, that lady being one Hociel Thomas (with married name Tebo), the niece of Sippie Wallace. In addition to three of the songs having been penned (and probably) recorded by Ms Thomas/Tebo, she had also recorded the title track back in 1946. It was Aunt Sippie though, who provided the first song in the set, Special Delivery Blues; Barbara herself is listed as co-writer along with Sippie and brother Hersal which is probably because she would have added and/or changed verses. The song is memorable because of an opening riff and melody line which sounds like the start of Ivory Joe Hunter’s much later I Almost Lost My Mind though it doesn’t complete the riff, instead dropping back to a repeat. It’s also notable for some upwards note bending from Ms Wallace towards the end of each verse, which feature is seized upon and gloriously accentuated by Barbara. In other respects and throughout the album, Barbara’s voice is very much her own with a consistency and depth that has never been matched by any other white female blues singer, before or since.

That same note bend appears again on Barbara’s version of what must be the most well-known song on the LP, the title track, Trouble In Mind, only this time it’s majestic rather than merely playful. The upwards swoop takes place on the third note of the first line, “I’m gonna lay my head / on some lonesome railroad line / and let the 2:19 train ease my worried mind”:

After a switch of label from San Francisco Records to Dot, LP #2, Livin’ With The Blues appeared in 1959. While the title might have suggested a similar blues-drenched follow-on to Trouble In Mind, the sleeve photo gave the impression that the LP was aimed at a rather more sedate supper club crowd. The content in fact bridged the two potentially differing audiences with roughly half being blues and the others standards or show tunes, with the occasional number like Why Don’t You Do Right blurring the boundaries. The backing from the Earl “Fatha” Hines Orchestra was more along swing lines than Dixieland jazz. For me the album was a success but not at the same exalted heights as Trouble In Mind. With this album Barbara was competing in a much bigger field where names like Ella and Sarah had been ruling the roost for years with white artists like Peggy Lee not too far behind. My favourite from the set is If I Could Be With You, wherein Barbara captures that mix of caring and nonchalant cool that the very best jazz vocalists find no problem with whatsoever.

In addition to LPs which had Barbara’s name in big letters on the sleeve there were others where the name was much smaller and one among many. Such albums sometimes had ‘Hootenanny’ in the title, something that Barbara herself wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about according to interviews. There’s one of these, though, which shouldn’t be ignored. Folk Festival At Newport Volume 2 contained recordings from the 1959 festival with the other artists given the treatment being Odetta, Joan Baez with Bob Gibson, the New Lost City Ramblers plus Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Barbara had two songs: Little Maggie and the American folk song Dink’s Blues. The alternate title to Dink’s Blues is Fare Thee Well and Barbara succeeded in making it one of those exits you’re not going to forget quickly. It’s slow, measured, but primal with occasional eruptions, melody minimal where present, lyrics that sometimes leap out – “I had a man and he was long and tall, and he moved his body just like a cannonball” – and accompanists who sound daunted by what’s in front of them (to the extent that much of the performance is a cappella).

Singles were relatively rare during this period but one which appeared in 1960 was rather special. On it’s A-side was an interpretation of the spiritual, I’m On My Way To Canaan with the title shortened to I’m On My Way. The record was produced by Lee Hazlewood and the arrangement was by Barbara herself (it says so on the label). The team responsible for the Aquarium Drunkard blog were so impressed with the record they devoted an article to it written by DK O’Hara (with very positive comments on other aspects of Barbara’s output as well). In DK’s words:

“Dane … refashions the song as a soulful, gritty prowler–one that seems to look forward to everything from Martha and the Vandellas to Amy Winehouse. The beat is unabashed minor-key Popcorn, the piano strutting along with little R&B flourishes, as if Dane were playing them herself, filling the gaps between each vocal line with defiant punctuation. We’re swinging, but we’re also approaching funk.”

I’m not sure about the “Popcorn” bit, to me that intro is reminiscent of those modern jazz items which sometimes used to blow in to the pop world from nowhere; Mel Tormé’s Comin’ Home Baby is a fine example. But DK is absolutely spot on about the voice and his critique goes on in a similar vein, talking about the arrival of the horns “spluttering raunchily” up to the end when “the only thing left to do is play it over again, to follow Dane’s liberating arc over and over again”.

Lack of UK release prevented the UK mod audience from hearing a single they’d have enjoyed but that didn’t deter the Northern Soul folk slightly further downstream from picking up on the disc and importing it to the UK (and in 2012 the track found its way onto a compilation from Outta Sight entitled The Age Of Northern Soul! (with exclamation mark actually in the title rather than added by self).

The album On My Way from Barbara would seem to have been a somewhat belated attempt – it was released in 1962 whereas the single had come out in November ’60 – at picking up on the success of the single, though I have to add that there’s no mention of any such success in any of the articles I’ve read (and I doubt whether it would have mattered much to Barbara anyway). Once again there was a label change: the album came out on Capitol, the single was on Trey Records. Barbara had by now opened her own club which was called Sugar Hill: Home Of The Blues, located in the North Beach district of San Francisco. On the album she was accompanied by members of her regular club band including Kenny Whitson on piano and trumpet, and Wellman Braud (ex Duke Ellington Orchestra) on bass, but they were supplemented by names like Earl Palmer (drums), Billy Strange (guitar) plus a gospel choir – the Andrews Gospel Singers from Oakland – though the ladies were only used sparingly. Indeed the overall mood was supper club piano-led jazz blues with only a couple of explicit nods to gospel music apart from an updated version of the title track with those ladies from Oakland in attendance. For the curious, this is the LP version of the song. My preference is for the single but the hand clapping section in the later cut does hit the spot. One number on the album which manages to echo the atmosphere of the I’m On My Way single is the R&B/jazz based Goodbye Daddy Goodbye. Billy Strange’s guitar is all over this one and it spurs Barbara on to greater heights.

Coming out at roughly the same time as On My Way or perhaps slightly before – the discographies vary on this point – was the When I Was A Young Girl LP but the date doesn’t really matter since the set had been sitting ‘in the can’ for a few years; it was recorded in 1959. Barbara is either totally solo on the tracks (with her own guitar) or she’s accompanied by Tom Paley on guitar or banjo. In my view this album is among the very best collections of interpreted traditional material by a single artist to be released during, what is often termed, the Folk Revival in America. The fact that, going by recording date, it was one of the earliest, makes it even more remarkable.

To check that I wasn’t going too overboard in my love for the great lady’s voice and the way she has with songs I conducted an exercise where I played each track and then sought out comparisons on YouTube. While I found a lot of interesting music – I hadn’t listened to Harry Belafonte for years, let alone Kathleen Ferrier and I didn’t know Richard Hawley had made a version of Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot – what rapidly came very clear was that Barbara’s versions of these songs were among the very best if not the best in some cases. High praise but she deserves it. Where she wins out is in the feeling that she’s lived the songs and is communicating those experiences in a voice that’s hers and hers alone. She doesn’t resort to over-sweetening which rarely works regardless of the technical qualities of the singer (Belafonte was particularly prone to this), nor does she adopt the mega jolly approach which late fifties folkies were prone to, singing each number as if it were a sea shanty, and she makes no attempt to imitate the vocal qualities of the authentic folk singer to whom the songs had been passed on by parents and grandparents before them.

The title track is the album opener. The first verse makes it abundantly clear that we’re in for something chilly:

When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure
When I was a young girl, I used to drink ale
Straight out of the ale house, then to the jail house
Straight out of the bar room, down to my grave

The rhythm is unusual with guitar seeming to swell at the comma breaks and line feeds in the verses. I’m tempted to call it ominous, but if there’s melodrama present it’s implied rather than laid on with a trowel. Unlike the later version from Nina Simone – see Footnotes – wherein she uses her piano to add the darker tones to her interpretation, Barbara rarely raises her voice and the added emphasis on guitar down strokes is subtle rather than emphatic.

Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot is a song I first heard on the Everlys’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. No questions about the rhythm this time; it’s waltz time and proud of it. You could call the number a variant on the standard blues theme of “my man done got on that train and gone” but the deliberately old fashioned language implies something in the white tradition and the rising and falling melody line even hints at a song that had travelled to the US from our shores. And much as I find it hard to say (and can’t think of any other song that has ever caused me to do so), Barbara’s version even improves on Don and Phil’s take. In part that’s because there’s a higher level of identification; the Everlys’ harmonised interpretation is less personal.

The closing song on the album is another with more than one title. Don’t Sing Love Songs is more commonly known as Silver Dagger. It appeared with that name on the eponymous LP from Joan Baez in 1960 and if you look that title up on YouTube you’ll find versions from artists as varied as Dolly Parton, Fleet Foxes and Ebony Buckle. A word of caution though, if you check out the feature on Silver Dagger in Wiki you’ll find songs with different lyrics and often different melodies all discussed under the general “Silver Dagger” heading. But I don’t want to pursue more discussion on comparisons. The Baez version is a significant part of the Baez story sitting, as it did, in pole position on her debut album. I know which one I prefer though.

The LPs kept coming. 1964’s Sings The Blues With 6 & 12 String Guitar (on Folkways) was more like what I’d call folk blues than anything so far, with that 12 string strongly to the fore recalling the great Leadbelly himself, though the songs aren’t typically those which are associated with the man. It’s possible that Folkways felt more comfortable with this style of delivery rather than the jazzier approach since the folk revival lot had very much wrapped their arms around Mr Ledbetter.

There was a second visit to Special Delivery Blues which featured an attention-grabbing climb to a note in the first verse. It was also interesting that she’d taken on more contemporary blues including a couple from Elmore James and one from Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters/Etta James (I Just Want To Make Love To You) but she incorporated her own stylistic approach on all of these which I don’t feel always played to the strength of these songs. An example is her take on Elmore James’ It Hurts Me Too; it’s good but …

My nod from Sings The Blues… goes to Victim To The Blues and the reasons for that are a) I feel that the performance represents Barbara’s best usage of her ‘new instrument’ on the album – it’s simple but just right – and b) that her version of the Ma Rainey original – and, yes, she changes the title (slightly) too – is one of her more effective reinventions of a number. And though I’ve talked about Leadbelly, echoes of Jesse Fuller come through on this one too and that’s not a bad thing.

More intriguing perhaps was 1966’s Barbara Dane And The Chambers Brothers (which also appeared on Folkways). The group were originally a gospel choir but, rather than taking the secular route into soul music like many others, they started appearing in coffee houses on the L.A. folk circuit. They came to the attention of Barbara who took them on tour with her and introduced them to Pete Seeger. The latter booked them into a slot at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. This is what they sounded like. It’s hardly surprising that they went down well.

I see the album as dividing roughly into three parts: the up-tempo stormers which I guess must be what most expected but could be the least interesting (but still not to be ignored), the religious slowies which many people probably wouldn’t have expected – they’re a less frequently heard portion of the gospel sound, and those that didn’t easily slot into such easy categorisation but fitted more to Barbara’s folk and activist background.

The protest theme actually threads through much of the album; note the dedications which precede You’ve Got To Reap What You Sow which make the song that bit more pointed. The slow numbers have less initial attraction but are more rewarding if the listener gives them full attention. The longest number on the album, We’ll Never Turn Back fits into this grouping with Barbara operating very successfully (to these ears) as lead singer of a gospel ensemble. Initially, the protest theme is not explicit but after a minute or two, that title statement is expanded: “No we’ll never turn back until we have all been freed and we have won equality”.

The third category contains an intriguing mix. Malvina Reynolds’ It Isn’t Nice gets turned into a blend of an early sixties style pop song and a protest number. It doesn’t quite work but was a brave try to create something different; sugar-coating around the message perhaps. Richard Fariña’s Pack Up Your Sorrows is a rare upbeat effort from Barbara and the mood is enhanced by the background singing and hand clapping from the Brothers. Definitely a respectable alternative to Richard and Mimi’s original.

I Am A Weary And A Lonesome Traveller is the song some of us know better as just Lonesome Traveller, a number that could almost be a traditional spiritual but was actually written by Lee Hays of the Weavers in 1950. I recall it well as the opener to Lonnie Donegan’s second LP, the 10 inch Lonnie. In Donegan’s hands and indeed most other people’s hands including the Weavers, the song was a jogalong affair which fitted neatly into the skiffle genre. Barbara makes those lyrics come alive – you feel, almost, as if this was the first time anyone had given them real attention – with a slow, deliberate minor key interpretation after a suitably lonesome harmonica has set the scene. All the focus is on Barbara with no vocals from the Brothers; they supply the instrumental support and do it very well indeed, I’d single out the guitarist in particular who acts as a foil to Barbara.

Nothing is straightforward about Barbara’s discography (though I hasten to add that I wouldn’t say that about the lady herself). In 1966 an LP entitled Lightnin’ Hopkins With Barbara Dane was released. It featured duets between the two principals recorded at the Cabale in Berkeley, CA in June 1964 plus other numbers featuring Lightnin’ without Barbara but backed by his brothers Joel and John Henry, the second block of numbers having been recorded in 1961. Then in 1996 there was a rerelease of the set under the new title of Sometimes I Believe She Loves Me with significantly changed content. The 5 numbers featuring the pairing had been expanded to 10, and the album was rounded out by 7 numbers from Barbara without Lightnin’ but with a small group backing her. I’m basing my comments on the second of the two albums even if that does mean they are out of sequence in terms of reviewed releases.

The remarkable thing about this album was that it happened at all. My recall goes back to the days when musical weekly Melody Maker saw Lightnin’ as raw and primitive compared to people like Josh White. Okay, by the time we were starting to close in on the mid sixties, attitudes had changed but it still wasn’t exactly common to have a white lass recording alongside someone like Lightnin’. The manner of the LP’s recording is told in the sleeve notes to Barbara’s 2018 retrospective album, Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs. Apparently Chris Strachwitz, founder and, at that time, owner of Arhoolie Records, came up with the idea to record Barbara in a club environment in front of some invited friends prior to her move from the West Coast to New York; the club selected was the Cabale, a favourite with Barbara. Among the guests who turned up was Lightnin’ Hopkins who assumed that what he was attending a jam session so he opened his guitar case and joined Barbara on stage. Unbeknown to him, an unseen Chris still had his tape recorder going.

Outside of its uniqueness, I wouldn’t call the set an unqualified triumph but, it has to be remembered, that it was effectively an unrehearsed jam which definitely has its moments, with a clear air of enjoyment enveloping one and all and the two singers and pickers sparking off each other at times. The title track which is one of the rare slow numbers is one of those high points. After some characteristic single note runs, Lightnin’ gets it rolling, “Sometimes I believe she loves me / And then again poor Lightnin’ fears she don’t”, Barbara attempts to put his mind at rest which elicits a flurry of high notes on Lightnin’s guitar, and so it goes. Yup, this is one to treasure:

More typical are the faster, more stompy, tracks. A good example is Let Me Be Your Rag Doll on which Barbara takes the lead vocal with Lightnin’ satisfying himself through plenty of positive heckling/encouragement.

In 1970, Barbara and her partner, ex-Sing Out! magazine editor (and co-founder) Irwin Silber, founded Paredon Records. Their intention when so doing was to record and release protest music from around the world. The label released nearly fifty albums over a twelve year period, with Barbara herself heavily involved in the production process. The label was later incorporated into Smithsonian-Folkways, the non-profit label of the Smithsonian Centre in Washington D.C.

Barbara appeared in the lead role on three Paredon albums: FTA! Songs Of The GI Resistance (1970), I Hate The Capitalist System (1973) and When We Make It Through (1982). The last of the trio was recorded in Havana, Cuba; in 1966, Barbara had been the first North American musical artist to tour the island.

The songs in FTA! Songs Of The GI Resistance were recorded in GI coffee houses near US Army bases in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. The liner notes which contain essays on the anti-Vietnam War movement written by Barbara and Irwin plus song lyrics are in the public domain (and some of the songs were written by draft resisters). The content is liberally sprinkled with protest marching songs including old chestnuts like We Shall Not Be Moved. Among the new songs, Barbara’s own near-rap Insubordination (that’s the song title) gets its first, and I think, only, recorded airing, complete with call and response à la Ray Charles and his Raelettes. The song sums up Barbara’s ‘resister’ philosophy in a four minute song:

Well I don’t want nobody over me
And I don’t want nobody under me
I’m gonna tell it how it’s gotta be
You better have a little respect for me!

More conventional ‘folkish’ anti-war songs are less in evidence but I would single out Ballad Of Richard Campos and Just Another Day with lyrics that will flatten you – And they told the people here to hold their breath / Well it’s just another day, just a little death.

Coming cold to this album, having perhaps listened to only a smattering of Barbara’s earlier work it will come as a shock which, of course, is what’s intended. The occasional protest number had appeared previously – like the Joe Hill written Stung Right in When I Was A Young Girl – but these were the exceptions not the rule.

With I Hate the Capitalist System Barbara seemingly switched her targets from politicians and generals to big bankers and big bosses – some things don’t change! However this was slightly deceptive in that the songs were actually wider ranging. Musically, this was also a more conventional offering than its predecessor, fourteen political ballads sung in the studio in traditional folk style with Barbara accompanying herself on guitar and extra instrumentation sometimes present; it could almost have been an immediate follow-up to When I Was A Young Girl only by this time, and in part due to her work for Paredon, Barbara was blessed with a much greater knowledge of protest songs. In addition she was contributing more in terms of words and songs herself.

The songs were probably largely unfamiliar to the average listener. An exception might have been the stark Bitter Rain which had appeared on Malvina Reynolds’ second album, Sings The Truth, in 1967. At the opposite extreme in terms of familiarity was Song Of The Coats which was written by Xuan Hong, a Viet Cong fighter operating in Southern Vietnam. The Anti-War Songs site opens its piece on the song in the following manner:

“Written in the southern part of Vietnam in the early ’60s, this song was printed in a little pocket songbook carried by the NLF fighters [ossia il Việt cộng] as one of their first gifts to people in the newly liberated villages. It celebrates the dedication of the people working in the little jungle workshops even under the constant threat of bombings and strafings to supply the needs of the fighters.”

The book was “the size of a matchbox with coloured artwork, the melody, the words in Vietnamese, and surprisingly, an English translation” (source: sleeve notes to the album Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs).

Also, because it came from “the other side of the tracks” the average punter listening to this album for the first time would have been unaware that Barbara’s Things Are Slow came from a 1954 single from bluesman J.B. Hutto entitled Things Are So Slow recorded in Chicago (and so like the Chess label’s inimitable electric blues sound that it could almost have come from them, but didn’t). Barbara significantly modified the lyrics of the number.

When We Make It Through was, as stated earlier, recorded in Cuba with an all Hispanic band and was produced by Barbara’s son (from her second marriage), Pablo Menéndez. Pablo had moved to Cuba in 1966 at the age of fourteen in order to study at the National School of Art. He’s lived there ever since. After its two predecessors this set seems more relaxed and almost celebratory, possibly as a result of the increased (and more up to date) stylistic approach and the fuller instrumentation. The protest songs were certainly present; tracks one and two were titled Working Class Woman and Mill Worker respectively (and the CD version had Factory Girl as track #3, this being Barbara’s take on an Irish traditional number). The album closed with the title track, When We Make It Through which was quite possibly a conscious follow-on to songs like You Can’t Make It By Yourself and We’ll Never Turn Back from Barbara Dane And The Chambers Brothers.

Apart from appearances on compilations and other people’s records there was very little of note released by Barbara throughout the rest of the eighties and nineties other than a single, Gipper Gate Blues, which was triggered by the Nicaraguan Contras Affair. However, come the turn of the century, the albums started flowing again; no retirement for this lady! 2002 saw What Are You Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Jazz?, a return to the days of Trouble In Mind and Livin’ With The Blues, and recorded in New Orleans and Oakland. This was followed, in short order, by 2004’s Live! At The Ash Grove: New Year’s Eve 1961–62, a live set disinterred from those early days with Kenny Whitson and Wellman Braud accompanying her. Finally, though we’re told there are plans for more, in 2016 another studio set was released with the spotlight very much on Bay area pianist Tammy Hall who formed a major part of the accompaniment. That set was Throw It Away, named after one of the songs therein. And not only was Tammy present, so also was Barbara’s son Pablo with his mouth harp for a few of the more blues inclined numbers.

Barbara’s voice might have largely gone by 2016 but what we were left with was pin-sharp diction and intonation, and that feeling for whatever she was singing had, if anything, increased. The set was more like late night intimate supper club music than anything she’d recorded hitherto though that didn’t stop Barbara opening with a bit of period raunch from Memphis Minnie, I’m Sellin’ My Porkchops (but I’m giving my gravy away) (and that was me providing the full line), double entendre indeed! Immediately following the opener she came bang up to date with the number Slow which had just appeared on Leonard Cohen’s final album – Leonard was still alive when Barbara’s album was being recorded but died only a few weeks later. Regrettably there’s no clip of the album track on YouTube but I’m going to give you the lyrics to the first verse anyway; I’m certain that such lines appealed to Barbara’s wicked sense of humour:

I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last

The closing number in the set came from Mose Allison with extra lyrics from Barbara. Titled My Brain, you don’t need to think very hard to figure out where this one came from given Allison’s penchant for adapting/rewriting blues numbers in his style. In between there were other numbers which were distinctly outside Barbara’s normal repertoire including Paul Simon’s American Tune and the Beatles’ In My Life. The latter becomes much more of a look back than when John sang it and Barbara’s fragility is more evident here than anywhere else on the album.

After that I felt that a reminder of Barbara’s glory days was in order before we close. There aren’t all that many live clips of her in existence but the one below, notwithstanding the below par visual quality, is – to quote Eddie Cochran – somethin’ else! The date is 7th January 1959 and Barbara is fronting an all star jazz outfit which includes Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa and Bobby Hackett:

 

 

Barbara Dane photo 3

Barbara Dane, Chicago 1970

FOOTNOTES

1. Alvino Rey was a guitarist (and steel guitarist) plus band leader who operated out of the L.A. and Hollywood areas in the years preceding the Second World War and after. He had hits with Deep In The Heart Of Texas and Cement Mixer.

2. There’s further info on the sessions which produced Good Morning Blues / The Glory Of Love in Jazz Lives which appears to be slightly at odds in terms of personnel or labelling with the discography I’ve used as the ‘bible’ of Barbara’s music from Stefan Wirz.

3. Black clarinetist George Lewis, who was born in the year 1900, had some musical success working in his home town of New Orleans in the twenties. However, lack of work forced him to take employment in the docks in the early forties. In 1944, he picked up a severe injury at the docks which took him out of action musically for some time. Later he worked with trumpeter and band leader Bunk Johnson and he took over Johnson’s band when he retired. At the tail end of the forties and the early fifties his records started to reach the UK and became influential on people like Monty Sunshine and Acker Bilk. In 1957 and 1959, he visited and played in the UK (and also Denmark in ’59) receiving a very positive response. Historically, he is looked upon as one the most important artists to be involved in the New Orleans jazz revival.

4. Good Morning Blues, the A-side of Barbara’s first single backed by the George Lewis/Dick Oxtot jazz band is credited to Leadbelly plus Alan Lomax. It was the latter who, with his father John, ‘discovered’ Leadbelly and recorded him for the Library Of Congress. This is Leadbelly with the song plus his intro which doesn’t usually feature in the many covers of the number. It’s entirely possible that the song itself actually predates Leadbelly’s version.

5. The flipside of Barbara’s Good Morning Blues was (The) Glory Of Love, a song which I have known for years but was reminded of when putting together a Toppermost on Sanford Clark not too long ago. The song came from the white popular music domain and these are the words I wrote about it at the time:

“Quite what spurred Lee Hazlewood on to record Sanford on The Glory Of Love, I just don’t know. The song was written by Billy Hill and was recorded in 1936 by Benny Goodman (with vocal refrain from Helen Ward) which resulted in a #1 hit. My preference though would be for the version by early doo wop outfit the Five Keys in 1951. There’s also a version on YT from Big Bill Broonzy which I’m partial to (love the picture too). All that was by way of intro to the 1957 version by Sanford which didn’t seem to draw explicitly from any of those tracks.”

Connections that you don’t expect pop up all over the place in popular and roots music. If you’ve read the main text you’ll be aware of Lee Hazlewood’s name coming up later in the Ms Dane story. However, I think it unlikely that she had heard the Sanford Clark version of The Glory Of Love … but I could be wrong.

6. Hociel Thomas is probably not a name that most readers will be familiar with. Born in Texas in 1904 she was an “American blues singer in the classic female blues style” in the words that can be found in the relevant Wikipedia feature. She was a song writer as much as a performer and often provided songs for, and worked with, her aunt Sippie Wallace. She recorded several records for the Okeh label in 1925/26 on which Louis Armstrong could sometimes be found among the accompanists.

7. The word “orchestra” as used in “the Earl “Fatha” Hines Orchestra” is misleading in that it doesn’t signify a large grouping of musicians. In this case those musicians were Hines himself (on piano), Plas Johnson (tenor sax), Herbie Harper or John Halliburton (trombone), Benny Carter (trumpet), Leroy Vinnegar (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums).

8. The song, When I Was A Young Girl has an unusual genealogy. According to the secondhandsongs site it was written by a lady called Texas Gladden but under the title One Month In May (after a phrase in the final verse). Texas was an Appalachian style singer who was born in Virginia. She recorded a number of songs which were collected into an album by musicologist Alan Lomax in 1941/42 (Texas Gladden – Ballad Legacy) and One Morning In May was included. This is where the confusion comes in. There is another traditional song with that name but with different melody and lyrics. The Mrs Gladden number was then recorded by a lady called Hally Wood in 1951 (also unaccompanied). It appears in a Folkways compilation entitled The Unfortunate Rake which was released in 1960, still under the same name. In addition to being a singer – she was known to be part of the Pete Seeger ‘circle’ – Hally also worked for a time with Alan Lomax so it was probably via him that she got to know about the song. (Wood was born in Texas and was known to record Texan songs but that’s just an odd semi-coincidence). Quite where the title change occurs isn’t clearly documented but Ms Dane has it clearly as When I Was A Young Girl; hers is also the first accompanied version. According to secondhandsongs, the next person to record the number was Nina Simone, a lady who always showed superb taste in her selection of songs.

9. The lyrics to the Malvina Reynolds song It Isn’t Nice came from a sleep-in that blocked the lobby of San Francisco’s famous Palace Hotel in which Malvina had participated (source: sleeve notes to the album Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs).

10. I try not to miss an opportunity to plug the music of the hugely underrated Lonnie Donegan, hence the mention (and I do still have that LP). Donegan was as important as any of those earnest white ladies & gents who largely made up the American folk revival with the possible exception of a certain Mr Zimmerman. Without Lonnie would we have had the Beatles or the Stones, or Van? Check out Paul F. Newman’s excellent Toppermost on the man if the name doesn’t mean much to you.

11. When Barbara sings the line “Let me be your rag doll ˈtil your kewpie doll comes” I strongly suspect she’s making use of an old blues couplet “Let me be your little dog ˈtil your big dog comes” but updated for white sensibilities. The wording certainly appears in Carl Perkins’ Matchbox and Carl has stated that he picked up most of the lyrics from old blues phrases.

12. I don’t know whether Barbara chose the songs in the ‘second’ section of the album Sometimes I Believe She Loves Me i.e. the portion where Lightnin’ Hopkins doesn’t appear, or they were chosen for her but I’d like to think they were personal favourites. Which could account for the selection of songs like Careless Love, the baddie ballad Betty And Dupree which was given a hit parade lease of life by Chuck Willis in ’57, and Woody Guthrie’s Deportees to which, this being Barbara, she gave her own melodic variation.

13. I dug more into the origins of the song Deportee(s) (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos – and would note as a minor point that the ‘s’ tended to get dropped in later recorded versions). More importantly, it was actually written as a poem by Woody Guthrie after he saw the report of the plane crash in the New York Times of 29th January 1948. None of the deportees’ names were printed in that report so Woody used symbolic names in his poem like Juan and Rosalita. The melody line that we are familiar with first got attached to Woody’s words a decade later by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman: Guthrie had only chanted the original version (source: Wiki).

14. I have attempted to give critical attention to what I saw as the more important of Barbara’s LPs and CDs but haven’t included absolutely all of them. For an exhaustive, indeed almost complete list of her records and their contents plus other details, I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Stefan Wirz illustrated discography to which I made reference in Footnote #2. Possibly due to the album’s recent date, the discography doesn’t include the 2CD retrospective Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs which was put together by Folkways and released in 2018. In Folkways’ words, “The 38 tracks include 14 never-before-released recordings, featuring collaborations with Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Chambers Brothers, Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, Art Hodes, and more.” While the majority of tracks are from released Folkways albums they also sought permission to include a small number that weren’t recorded for Folkways or Paredon, in order to make the set relate more strongly to Barbara’s recording career. From the extensive sleeve/liner notes one learns that for a period in 1958/59, Barbara’s backing group consisted of Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon. The track Walking Blues is one that has survived from that period (and is on Hot Jazz…). Another gem that’s been included in the set is the pairing of Barbara with Doc Watson on You Don’t Know Me/You Don’t Know My Mind within which the pair sing their own versions of the number alternating the verses.

15. Faults/Errors/Opportunities – the reason for this sub-heading will very shortly become clear:

* An album from the Reverend Gary Davis was released in 1974 entitled Let Us Get Together. The discographies from both Stefan Wirz and Discogs show Barbara as vocalist on the track Tired, My Soul Needs A’Restin’. I have it from the highest authority that this attribution is incorrect; Barbara Dane is NOT the female singer on the track (though I would add that it is a magnificent recording).

* The 1966 album Don Ewell: Denver Concert With Barbara Dane (not mentioned in the main text) was cut at the wrong speed with the result that Barbara’s voice is speeded up and not true to life. Which is a shame because Don was a very fine pianist who accompanied her on the Trouble In Mind LP.

* The Livin’ With The Blues/On My Way twofer CD set which saw release in 2013 is misleadingly labelled on the European version of Spotify; the appearance given is that the Earl Hines Orchestra was in support on both albums which, of course, readers will now know, was not the case, the Kenny Whitson band were in support for the second album.

* And finally something positive: I have it on good authority that there was another album’s worth of tracks from the Capitol On My Way session which have never been released and which the producer assured Barbara were as good as the tracks that did see the light of day. So if there’s an enterprising producer out there, this could be a project for you.

16. In their November 1959 release, Ebony, the monthly magazine for the US black market which was founded in 1945, included a seven page article on Barbara, which contained a whole load of pictures of her working with black artists. The article had the heading “WHITE BLUES SINGER: Blonde keeps blues alive”.

17. I have bemoaned the paucity of live clips of Barbara performing so thought it would be fitting to finish this piece with a couple of clips that are present and correct: first, from 1963 she performs Careless Love and the gent behind her is playing an almost inaudible jug as is gradually revealed (this comes from a documentary hence the voiceover and is also presumably why it’s cut short), and secondly, from her 75th Birthday Concert in which she sings Brother Can You Spare A Dime:

 

 

 

Barbara Dane photo 4

Barbara Dane at a San Francisco anti-war march in 1964

 

Barbara Dane photo 5

Barbara Dane with Bobby Hackett and Louis Armstrong in 1959

 

Barbara Dane photo 2

Barbara Dane and Bob Dylan, Gerdes Folk City, February 1963

 

Barbara Dane photo 6

Peter Yarrow, Pete Seeger, Barbara Dane, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez in Central Park 1975

 

 

Barbara Dane official website

Barbara Dane Discography

Barbara Dane Legacy Project facebook

Barbara Dane at Smithsonian Folkways

Barbara Dane at Discogs

Barbara Dane biography (Wikipedia)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Sanford Clark, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Lonnie Donegan, Everly Brothers, Richard & Mimi Fariña, Ella Fitzgerald, Ivory Joe Hunter, Leadbelly, Carl Perkins, Nina Simone, Big Joe Turner, Muddy Waters, Chuck Willis

TopperPost #820

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 10, 2019

    Dave, thanks for this great piece and what a superb voice Barbara has. Not sure why I hadn’t heard of her before but will be exploring her work further after reading this excellent introduction.

  2. Barbara Dane
    Nov 11, 2019

    I am both grateful and surprised by the scope and thoroughness Dave Stephens has applied to this resume of my work. I’m almost overwhelmed when I think of how much research and presence he has brought to the task. However, an important explanation is missing. He does reflect the fact that I’ve been a tough bird to follow, but as a Brit he could not have realized the function of that insidious American cultural constant called the blacklist. In fact, most Americans are surprised to learn that there are files concerning my flights resting in the FBI files from 1946 forward.. Of course I am just one of thousands who have been subjected to this erasure from history. It would take a large dedicated corps of researchers and analysts to get any sort of meaningful grasp of the cultural distortion this has meant, all in the name of reinforcing the concept of Amercan Exeptionalism.

    Dave has poked a big hole in the velvet curtain, and there is only the most profound gratitude pouring from my heart for this. Together with Sophian Fanen, a French journalist who produced a sort of graphic novel piece covering a broad outline of my life and work, and Eric Doidy, writing in the French journal Soul Bag, Dave Stephens has helped shine some European daylight on at least one humble American cultural worker. Every bit counts!

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 11, 2019

      Barbara, I don’t know how to express my thanks for your very kind words. I’m not one of those writers who states that he/she doesn’t pay any attention to feedback, and feedback from the subject of one’s scribbling has to be the most treasured of all particularly when it’s expressed with such precision.

      With regard to the lack of awareness in the UK of your global musical (and political) contribution, I did at one stage think about including a paragraph or two of theories as to why this does seem to be the case. I eventually dropped the idea because I felt that it might smack of self-indulgence in a feature that was meant to be about you. Blacklisting would have been in there but I didn’t really know what went on so such thoughts might have amounted to little more than headlines.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓